Confused? You won't be after this
Religion, just like most things in Yemen, is often confusing to the outside observer.
Those with a passing interest in the Middle East will generally know of the main schism in Islam, that between Shia and Sunni. The conflicts we see in the Middle East today, whether in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain or Lebanon, are often largely framed in the manner of disputes between adherents of Shia and Sunni Islam.
Sometimes, they are even portrayed as the continuation of a 1,000 year old “war for Islam” - which is useful for anyone trying to whitewash the role of colonialism and little things like the Iraq War – they’d have been killing each other anyway!
Enter Yemen. In the north of the country, a group known as the Houthis, but also now known as Ansar Allah, variously described as “Zaydi Revivalists”, “Shia militants” and “pro-
|It’s complicated. Then politics got involved
Iranian fighters”, have been fighting with what seems like just about everyone over the past ten years.
They’ve taken on the Yemeni state in six wars since 2004, fought Yemeni and foreign Salafis, skirmished with the Saudi army and battled with the al-Ahmars, the leaders of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, Hashid.
Kudos to them, they’ve performed relatively successfully - in September their militiamen found themselves entering the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and found a city there for the taking. Within days thousands of their supporters massed in the city's main Tahrir Square to celebrate what, even a year ago, would have seemed an improbable victory.
Who are the Houthis? Well, calling them “Shia”, “Zaydi” and “pro-Iranian” is fine, but will always lack nuance. That is not to say that it is wrong to describe them as this in the media - it’s very difficult (read: impossible) to devote a paragraph or two in each article about the Houthis and their ideological background.
So here is a brief backgrounder on Yemen’s religious make-up. The two “religious groups” to start with are Zaydis and Shafiis.
Zaydism (Zaydiyyah) is a school of thought within Shia Islam. It is named after Imam Zaydi Bin Ali, who was killed in an uprising against the Ummayyads. Although they were once found in places such as Iran and North Africa, Zaydis are now only found in significant numbers in Yemen. A Zaydi Imamate ruled many parts of northern Yemen for 1,000 years, up until the last Imam was overthrown in 1962. Traditionally, places such as Sanaa, Dhamar, Hajja and Amran are largely Zaydi, while Saada governorate could be considered the Zaydi heartland. A common saying referring to the Zaydis is that they are “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, indicating that there is not a huge difference doctrinally between Zaydis and Sunnis - or at least it has been perceived that way.
Shafiism (Shafiyah) is a school of thought within Sunni Islam. It is named after Imam al-Shafii, and is one of the four main schools of thought in Sunni Islam. Shafiis are found across the Muslim world, in Egypt, Syria, Indonesia and Somalia. In Yemen, Shafiis dominate all non-Zaydi areas, and form the majority in the country. However, some Shafiis cling to old grievances regarding the way that the ruling class of northern Yemen during the Imamate was Zaydi.
Now, the important thing to note, and this might sound odd to people used to looking at the rest of the region, Zaydis and Shafiis have traditionally gotten along just fine. For example, although a mosque may be affiliated to one group or the other, no one will bat an eyelid if a person from another sect comes in to pray. People pray together. The only difference you’ll notice is that some people pray with their hands to the sides (Zaydis) and others with their hands folded (Shafiis).
An example – my local mosque’s Friday sermon is delivered by an Egyptian sheikh from al-Azhar (a Sunni), the Zaydi call to prayer is given, the Imam leading the prayer is Zaydi, and the congregation is evenly split. My own family are split between Zaydis and Shafiis, and those that prefer to call themselves just Muslim and leave the details to one side. And all was good.
Until politics got involved.
|Many Houthis believe they are reviving traditions that have been suppressed since 1962|
What we’re seeing in northern Yemen today, in terms of fighting between the Houthis on one side, and various armed groups on the other, definitely has an element of the sectarianism that can be seen across the wider region. However, it’s a lot more confusing. For one, it’s wrong to simply say that Houthis = Zaydis, and, say, al-Ahmar = Shafiis. Or even worse, Houthis = Shias, and al-Ahmar = Sunnis.
For one, the Ahmars are traditionally Zaydi, just like the Houthis. I can’t vouch for the religious identification of each individual Ahmar, but I’d say that many of their tribal fighters will still, at least loosely, identify as Zaydi. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who fought six wars against the Houthis, was also Zaydi.
So is this Zaydi on Zaydi fighting? A Zaydi civil war?
Well, no. To put it very simply, you can say that the religious element behind the Houthis is, for want of a better word, more “hardcore” Zaydism. I was told by a Houthi that I met in Saadah that “the Zaydis in Sanaa have forgotten how to be Zaydi”. Many Houthis believe they are reviving Zaydi traditions and beliefs that have been suppressed in the years following the 1962 revolution - despite all presidents of North Yemen having been Zaydi. They see people like Saleh and the Ahmars as Zaydi in name only.
On the other side, the Ahmars, and Saleh in the past, have accused the Houthis of secretly not being Zaydi anymore and instead being Twelver Shias (a la Iran). This then easily feeds into the wider paranoia in the region of the spread of Shia influence and Iranian power. Although there are Houthi “Twelvers”, and many of them are newly “converted”, the vast majority of Houthis would still self-identify as Zaydi.
To further complicate things, many of the Ahmars are members of the Islah Party. The Ahmar Godfather, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, was the head of the Islah Party. Now, Islah is commonly known in Yemen to be “the Muslim Brotherhood party”. A Muslim Brotherhood group that is led by a Shia? Absurd. But one led by a “Zaydi”? Or at least one who isn’t that doctrinally strict? Not so absurd. And by painting the Houthis as “Twelvers”, it is easy for Islah/Ahmars to paint themselves as the defenders of Yemen (and Zaydism) against foreign ideas.
In short, it’s complicated. And to really understand the nuances of the Yemeni religious scene you need to have studied all the different religious schools for years, and then politics on top of that. Just remember this: however tempting it is to see what is going on in Yemen in the wider context of the sectarian troubles that are going on in the region, any analysis that does so will be at best simplistic and, at worst, just wrong.